September will mark four years since David Foster Wallace killed himself and since his passing there’s been plenty of ink spilled, digital and the old-fashioned kind, regarding the man and his work. There was first off the release of the incomplete Pale King, the novel Wallace was at work on at his death, then there’ve been at least three books of critical or otherwise work regarding the man, plus there’ve been long essays about what the marginalia in his library meant or how great his syllabi were, and finally there was an essay by maybe the biggest Big Deal US writer at present (also a Kenyon College commencement address speaker) on Wallace as well. There will be, this fall, a bio from DT Max, along with some until-now uncollected nonfiction.
The ultimate point of this post is to ackowledge that there have been, in the last several months, two books released regarding David Foster Wallace, and these two books are, together, the best works about Wallace yet to appear. From Iowa there’s The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, and from Mississippi there’s Conversations with David Foster Wallace. The former’s an edited collection of essays, some authored by scholars and critical, some authored by Wallace’s peers or other creative writers and much less critical (critical here meaning engaging-in-criticism, not negative); the latter’s a book which collects interviews Wallace gave from ’87 till ’08. If you’re a Wallace fan of the sort many of us are, you needn’t me telling you about these books: you already knew about them, and have had them since their releases (April, each [or if you’ve got it really bad, you bought Legacy because that had stuff that’d never been published before, but you skipped Conversations because you’ve got an old yellow folder in which are all the interviews you ever found with Wallace, each printed, worn thin from regular handling]).
What’s weird about these books is that, on the one hand, I’m compelled to urge you to purchase them and care about them—they’re both good, and useful (as much as a book can be), and will each offer interesting and cool ways to view Wallace. You should do yourself the favor of getting Conversations simply to be aware of the fact that the separation between man and writer was likely real slim, and just to be able to sit somewhat courtside and experience Wallace’s brilliance and language pop like fireworks even in pretty low-bar settings. Legacy is great as well, though I’m afraid of what it ultimately does to the work of Wallace. More on that in a second.
Without doing some long here’s-my-Wallace-story, I’ll say that I’ve read him seriously for 15 years and felt, since first experiencing his stuff, like he was doing work that was and remains unequalled in terms of compassion and how he attempted to slash through the ironic stance and worldview which’s dominated popular culture for the past while. Wallace wanted, over and over, to give an adult damn about things, and the stuggle involved in honestly, sincerely giving an adult damn put him in fits (see for instance this letter to Don DeLillo) but also lit his work up with ordnance unmatched by just about anybody.
The slight issue I’ve got with this stuff about Wallace, however, is maybe simple nostalgia and sorrow: I am, like lots of young writers, still very sad that he’s gone, and it kills me that there’s little new stuff of his I’ll ever read, if there will be anything at all. And while these recent books are good, and will be useful to Wallace scholars, and to the larger group of folks attempting to make sense of what happened in American letters at the turn of this last century, there’s an incredible shrinkage transpiring even now regarding Wallace and his work. Because here’s the thing, as you know if you’ve read him: Wallace’s stuff was, certainly, phenomal at trying to illuminate the struggle of actually giving an adult damn about things, but it was also, equally, all of the following: howlingly funny, and uncomfortably honest about things lots of us would like to maybe not have to be so honest about, and technically brilliant, and massively, almost casually, insightful. It was plenty more, too—if you read and loved his work, you’ve got your list.
But of course no essay about his work can possibly encapsulate the man. What I’m saddened by, then, I realize, is that this is the first writer I’ve been alive for and aware enough of to watch be canonized—a process which, almost automatically, must make do with incompleteness. There could easily be a book titled Why Wallace Work Was Great, and it too would not be able to accurately or fully take full account of his work, and yet, from now on, for the next however many generations of readers, Wallace will be someone in the canon, someone great they maybe should read. And this, more than anything, feels deeply, deeply weird. It’s great, obviously—Wallace was, early on, clearly punching at the highest weightclass, and he should absolutely be canonized and studied. It almost feels, however, as if the best way to admire the man’s work and legacy and contributions would be to simply read his stuff—not work about his work, not explications or considerations, not anything but his actual work. I know that’s a silly hope, but it’s hard, on reading this first wave of books about the man, to not feel terribly sad at the end of reading, simply because his work itself is thicker and more insteresting and funny and wonderful than anything any of us could possibly write about it.